The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is marking its centenary this year with a series of major commissions. The new works are scattered through the season and one of them, Unsuk Chin’s Spira, began Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s latest concert with the orchestra; Gražinytė-Tyla had also conducted the work’s world premiere with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in April last year.
Chin subtitles her piece “concerto for orchestra”, and the single movement, just over quarter of an hour long, certainly has all the flair, colour and virtuoso brilliance of a show piece. The title, she says, is taken from the 18th-century idea of the logarithmic spiral, which characterises so many growth processes in the natural world; everything in the music of Spira grows from the chromatic shimmer of two bowed vibraphones heard at the start of the piece, and which provides a point of reference through to the final long, poetic fade. Despite the hyperactivity and complexity of the scoring, the full orchestral forces are used sparingly; the overriding impression is of glittering transparency, and of tracing a totally sure-footed harmonic path from beginning to end.
Another CBSO centenary premiere closed the concert: the first in a series of “20 little pieces” – Gražinytė-Tyla’s description – commissioned from composers under 30. Liam Taylor-West’s Turning Points was an impressively fluent three-minute orchestral workout, with a definite translatlantic twang to its rhythms, if just a bit too busily scored at times.
But there were no prizes for guessing what followed Chin’s concerto. Beethoven already seems inescapable in this anniversary year, and Gražinytė-Tyla started her contribution with the second and fourth symphonies. The approach was more or less traditional – an orchestra of more than 60 players, with natural trumpets the only obvious concession to historic performance practice – but the textures in both symphonies were always light and utterly lucid, the outer movements teeming with busy detail. Everything moved with lissom ease, and provided an object lesson in how to convey excitement and energy without ever seeming brash or over-insistent.